Best of Three: Sharapova, Murray in good form ahead of U.S. Open
Maria Sharapova survived a shaky performance Sunday to win the Cincinnati title
Andy Murray bounced back emphatically from a poor showing in Montreal
Injuries and withdrawals took a toll on the men's and women's draws in Cincinnati
1. Sharapova wins battle of ex-No. 1s: We'll get to injury-mania in a bit. But first, a toast to the winners of the "his" and "hers" titles at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati. Overall, the first year of this "mixed" event was a success.
Maria Sharapova may have a temperamental relationship with her serve, but when she gets into a point, she can play with anyone. That was apparent last week. Taking advantage of Serena Williams' mid-tournament withdrawal, Sharapova won her most significant hardcourt titles in years. Her run included some demolition jobs, which can happen when her serve is on. In the final, however, she doubled-faulted 11 times, yet showed her fighting strength by rallying to beat fellow former No. 1 Jelena Jankovic 4-6, 7-6 (3) 6-3. The match lasted 2 hours, 49 minutes and featured 16 service breaks, including seven in the third set.
"It felt like one of us played a few good points then the other one, and the levels were up and down throughout the match," Sharapova told reporters after her second title of the year. "I'm just fortunate that at the end of the day, I'm the winner."
Sharapova may or may not win another Slam. But let's pause to give her credit. She's engaged to be married, she's in her mid-20s and her net worth is such that she doesn't need to work another day in her life. Yet she's still out there, grinding out wins; traveling on the WTA caravan without missing too many whistle stops; and practicing daily, hellbent as she is on improvement. While other colleagues have either retired or chosen to be fabulous, Sharapova's commitment and professionalism ought to be acknowledged. She has moved up to No. 4 in the world after improving to 11-0 in three-set matches this year.
2. Murray rebounds: After getting blitzed in his first match at the Rogers Cup in Montreal two weeks ago, Andy Murray looked like his old self again in southwest Ohio. He breezed through the field with relative ease, failing to drop a set and taking his seventh career Masters Series shield. His final victory no doubt felt a bit hollow given Novak Djokovic's retirement with Murray leading 6-4, 3-0. But credit Murray for a week of poised hardcourt tennis that included a solid win over Mardy Fish in the semifinals.
This was only Djokovic's second "loss," such as it was, in 59 matches this season. He has a week to recover from his sore right shoulder before the U.S. Open begins next Monday.
"It's nice to win, but I'd rather beat him in three weeks' time in New York," Murray said afterward.
True to his ranking, Murray is fourth on the list of U.S. Open contenders. But that's assuming full health. If Djokovic and/or Rafael Nadal don't improve their physical states from this week, Murray suddenly has a real opportunity to win that elusive first major.
3. Injuries, withdrawals wreak havoc: The "tune-up" event affords players a chance to get in some matches on the same surface (and often weather conditions) of the upcoming major. That's the obvious benefit. The curse is that players are reluctant to risk injury before the Big Show and might be more cautious than normal.
Venus Williams pulled out of the Cincy event, as did Kim Clijsters (who subsequently announced she is not defending her U.S. Open title on account of a stomach injury). Serena Williams played one match and then departed, citing a sore big toe. Victoria Azarenka left town the same day, owing to a hand injury. Robin Soderling was a no-show in the men's event because of a wrist injury. Without taking too much away from his vanquisher (Fish), Rafael Nadal was not his usual you-have-to-kill-me-beat-me self in the quarterfinals. The worst of the owies came on Sunday when Djokovic, in obvious discomfort, tapped out during the final.
Tennis writer Matt Cronin called to our attention that 11 of the 20 men have been injured since Wimbledon. That was just seven weeks ago. The women's field isn't much better. This is dispiriting, and the cynic -- or a credible players' union -- might contend that there ought to be meaningful discussion about the equipment, the schedule, the modern game and whatever it is that is causing these various and frequent injuries. But this has been the case for years, and the establishment isn't particularly sympathetic. As an official once put it to me, with a shrug, "Injuries are part of sports."
That being the case, this trend will only accelerate. And fans should steel themselves for these mass withdrawals and retirements and no-shows, especially the closer we get to a Grand Slam.
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